Snopes.com stops serving adware

Debunk site pulls plug on Zango adware after long-running practice revealed

A popular urban legend debunking site has stopped serving up adware downloads after the practice was criticized by security experts and users, according to one researcher.

Snopes.com, a site that exposes urban legends, had until Monday been funding its operation in part with revenues from a pop-up ad that posed the question "Do you want to block Junk emails?" That pop-up, said Alex Eckelberry, CEO of Sunbelt Software, in turn shilled ad-serving software from Zango Inc., a well-known adware distributor that settled with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission in late 2006 over charges it used unfair and deceptive practices to download software to users' PCs.

Eckelberry said he had seen the pop-up on Snopes for more than a year, and had first complained to the site -- which is run by Barbara and David Mikkelson -- six months ago. He did not receive a response at the time, Eckelberry said in a post to his company blog Monday.

"Snopes is getting paid well for these pop-ups (either pay-per-click or by page views)," he charged Monday. "Advertisers like Zango don't pay to run ads that don't get a good response. And likewise, a site like Snopes won't waste valuable ad inventory on poorly-paying ads. And I firmly believe that the fact that the ads do well is because of Snopes' credibility."

Eckelberry's revelation gained traction when his blog was cited on Slashdot, the online tech news aggregation site.

Commenters reading his blog generally gave Snopes poor marks for how it was earning revenue. "I like Snopes, but I've largely given up visiting their site because of all the pop-up ads," said someone identified only as Steve. "The particular ad choices they've made have driven at least me away."

But some took Eckelberry to task. "Heaven forbid a site make[s] money," countered a commenter dubbed Anonymous.

By Tuesday, Snopes.com had apparently pulled the Zango pop-up, Eckelberry reported. "This seems to have changed yesterday evening," he said in an update to his original post. "The last time I confirmed the pop-up was at about 4 p.m. EST yesterday."

Eckelberry also responded to commenters who had argued that Snopes, like any site, had a right to monetize its content. "I have no problem with sites using advertising to pay their bills," explained Eckelberry. "[But] I do have a problem with a site consistently pushing one particular pop-up that pushes adware. It's not like this pop-up was occurring on some limited basis, or part of a series of ads. This was a consistent campaign that showed up regularly, for a long time."

Representatives from Snopes.com did not respond to several questions posed via e-mail, or to a message left at the phone number listed in the site's domain registration record.

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Gregg Keizer

Computerworld
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